On March 12, 2009 a Sikorsky S-92 helicopter carrying workers to the Hibernia oil rig crashed with the loss of 14 passengers and 2 crew. Only one passenger survived after being plucked from the North Atlantic by rescuers. The cause of the crash was attributed to a seized transmission which had seized upon losing all its lubricant. The transmission performs much like a car transmission and when it seizes the helicopters rotor will no longer turn depriving it of its lift.
The pilot of the helicopter attempted to reach land after becoming aware of the loss of lubricant, but never made it and crashed into the North Atlantic. The pilot was under the misapprehension that he had 30 minutes from the time he lost lubricant until the transmission would seize, he did not. The transmission seizure took the pilot by surprise so could not bring the craft down gently as he would otherwise have done. The pilot could be excused his misapprehension, after all it was the same one the FAA held and was advertised by Sikorsky: the S-92 has 30 minutes of flying time between loss of transmission lubricant and transmission seizure. This is a criteria for helicopter safety established by the FAA and when the S-92 failed this particular test, Sikorsky made design changes to address the failure. The problem was that there was no re-test after the design change.
This failure on the part of Sikorsky begs the question: "How do we weigh injury or the loss of human life against the loss of money?" I'm assuming that no one at Sikorsky decided that the loss of 16 souls was less important than the cost of ensuring the transmission met the 30 minute criteria. Sikorsky did eventually pay the families of the 16 to settle a law suit, the amount they paid is privileged according to the terms of the settlement. At some point project managers of projects where safety is on the line must make a decision: how to prioritize a risk event that could cause injury or death against one that would cause a financial loss. It seems to me that this is where we can be helped by Enterprise Risk Management. The corporate policy on safety should give the project manager guidelines around managing safety risks and the project budget should cover the appropriate mitigation strategies. Otherwise, we will continue to see disasters like the Sikorsky S-92 crash.